Meningococcal Disease FAQs


What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is a serious illness caused by Neisseria meningitis bacteria. It manifests most commonly as meningitis, an infection of the fluid and membranes of the spinal cord and brain, which can cause brain damage, disability and death if left untreated. Septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream, can also be caused by meningococcal bacteria. Meningitis sometimes results from a viral infection as well.

Anyone can get meningococcal disease. It is most common in infants less than one year of age and people 16-21 years. College freshmen living in dorms are at an increased risk. About 100 cases occur on college campuses in the U.S. each year, with 5-15 deaths.

Common symptoms of meningitis include stiff neck, headache, fever, sensitivity to light, sleepiness, confusion and seizures.

How is it treated?

It can be treated with antibiotics, but treatment must be started early. Despite treatment, 10-15% of meningitis cases are fatal. Another 10-20% cause long-term consequences.

A meningococcal vaccine is available from your doctor or travel health clinic. It protects against four of the five most common types of meningitis. Vaccine protection lasts 3-5 years and can prevent 50%-70% of cases on college campuses.

The meningococcal vaccine may cause reactions such as pain or fever. Discuss contraindications and rare but serious side effects with your healthcare provider.

How common is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is uncommon. In the United States, there are about 2,500 cases (1-2 cases for every 100,000 people) each year, including 300 to 400 in California. Of 14 million students enrolled in colleges nationwide, approximately 100 are infected with the disease each year.

How is it diagnosed?

A diagnosis is commonly made by growing the bacteria from spinal fluid or blood. Identifying the bacteria is important for selecting the best antibiotics.

Are college students at an increased risk?

Overall, undergraduate students have a lower risk than the non-student population (1.4 cases per 100,000 people per year). However, college freshmen living in dormitories have a modestly increased rate (4.6 cases per 100,000 people per year). Reasons for this increase are not fully understood but probably relate to students living in close proximity to one another.

How are meningococcal bacteria spread?

The bacteria are transmitted through close person-to-person contact, in secretions from the nose and throat. They are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air near an infected person. The bacteria can live outside the body for only a few minutes; so if the germs contaminate a desk or book, they soon die and won't infect a person who touches it later.

As many as 2 in 10 people carry the bacteria in the back of the nose and throat at any given time, especially in winter. Why only a very small number of those who have the bacteria in their nose and throat develop the disease, while others remain healthy, is not understood.

How can I avoid getting meningococcal disease?

You can protect yourself by maintaining good health and hygiene. As a general recommendation, you should wash your hands frequently. Avoid sharing materials that make mouth contact, such as eating utensils, bottles, cigarettes or lip balm. Contact a healthcare provider immediately if you are in close contact with someone who is known or suspected to have a meningococcal infection.

Is the vaccine recommended for college students?

Since 2005, the American College Health Association and Centers for Disease Control both issued a new recommendation to parents, students and the campus community. This recommendation states that all first year students living in residence halls should be immunized against meningococcal disease. Other college students under the age of 25 who wish to reduce the risk of infection may choose to be vaccinated. The CDC also recommends meningococcal vaccination for adolescents entering high school and pre-adolescents, 11-12 years of age. This was recommended after the new conjugate vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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